This is an article written by Jim rom We are Chain for the Small Business group Enterprise Nation. First Published in January 2021.

When we started Designed in Dorset in 2019, we knew there was some appetite for a local marketplace promoting artisan products produced within a geographical area. As a rule, people tend to be quite passionate about where they live, especially if it as beautiful as Dorset.

The aim was to tap into both the local population’s passion for home and the global brand that is Dorset, which is home to the likes of Lush, Dorset Cereals, Jimmy’s Iced Coffee and Conker Gin. What we were not prepared for was the effect of national lockdowns on the shop local movement and the boost it has given us and our vendors.

‘Lockdown has opened our eyes’

The convergence of COVID-19 lockdowns and the climate emergency has created a perfect storm for small independent businesses ready to sell online and local marketplaces like ours. The lockdowns seem to have opened our eyes to what has been on our doorstep for years – incredible artisan businesses run from next door’s kitchen table that you never knew existed.

At Designed in Dorset, we help give these businesses the chance to get their products online and in front of a wider audience than might be possible alone or in a crowded space like Etsy and Not On The High Street. For some of our vendors, our platform is their website and like a lot of business owners, the internet is a very difficult place to get found – so becoming an e-commerce expert takes you away from what you do best. Which is why we have had such a good sign up to the platform.

In the lead up to Christmas we saw a surge of customers looking for something to satisfy those who wanted to shop local. I personally called anyone who spent over £100 with us on a mixed basket from multiple vendors and the message was always the same. “We just want to support local businesses that we didn’t know where there. Your website has allowed us to find all the Dorset ones in one place.”

Customers are ‘willing to wait for quality products’

Customers understand that we and our vendors can’t necessarily deliver the next day free shipping service that Amazon can, but they have become more willing to wait for quality products and a unique shopping experience.

The original plan was to do a lot of offline promotion of Designed in Dorset and host shopping tents at county shows and markets around the county. This would have enabled us to showcase our vendors, who could make things in the tent as a live show, as well as promoting the overall marketplace.

As a result of lockdown, social media has been the place where we have concentrated our efforts. Facebook and Instagram have been very useful in growing our following. We ran two competitions last year with a cracking mix of handmade prizes. The Great Dorset Giveaway prize contained over £250 worth of Dorset goodies and gained us at least 700 new followers. Our 12 Days of Christmas competition did not go quite as well, because we think we asked too much of our entries – to post Christmas photos to cheer everyone up and tag us. The key to success is to reduce barriers to entry as much as possible and keep it to like, share and follow competitions.

‘Our vendors have become a community’

There are many benefits to building something like this with an ethical agenda. Our vendors have become a community of like-minded businesses and several have formed partnerships as a result of being on the platform.

“Designed in Dorset showcases some of the best artisan businesses created in this lovely county, and Pip Natural Skincare are proud to be part of the family,” wrote one of our first vendors to sign up, Catherine Thomas (the owner of Pip Natural Skin Care).

‘Every one of our vendors has a brilliant story to tell’

We are big believers in storytelling as a way to generate interest from customers. Every one of our vendors has a brilliant story to tell and we want to help them tell it. Before the lockdown we managed to capture a few of these, including the mental health nurse turned forester who makes his products out of waste wood from Dorset’s heathland. The cheesemakers who make vodka out of waste milk, meanwhile, are a particular favourite of ours!

Magazine editors – like Helen Stiles from Dorset Magazine – are keen to help us spread the word because they get the value in supporting local companies they may not have heard of. They understand we don’t have a huge budget for advertising (yet) and are keen to feature new and exciting products.

We have recently entered a partnership with another popular local publication called The Blackmore Vale. Every month, we get to promote a new vendor to their readers on our very own Designed in Dorset page. These opportunities would not be available to a single business without a good network and a decent PR budget.

The challenges of building an online marketplace

Building a marketplace is one of the hardest businesses to get off the ground. You can’t generate traffic and customers without having anything to sell. You can’t attract vendors if there are no customers. You have to build both sides of the business at the same time.

We currently have over 70 vendors and are aiming to reach 100 by the end of February. At that point we can put a lot more focus on generating the traffic to make it worthwhile being on the website.

I’ve asked a few other businesses their opinions of the shop local movement. Carly Hooper, owner of skincare company Beeutiful, said: “I’d say there has definitely been an increase in the realisation that small businesses are out there and an increased inclination to shop from them.”

Megan Charnock who runs an artisan bakery Mini Miss Bread, explained that customers “are saying they want to support their local indies and help ensure they don’t go under. We’ve had a number of new customers as a result of people wanting to shop local over lockdown. We encourage it more by now offering free local delivery.”

Building local partnerships is vital – and fun

It is not just vital to build local partnerships; it’s so much fun. Prior to March 2021, we were driving hundreds of miles around the country supporting county shows with their trade stands and sponsorship. The complete collapse of that business has meant we are now trapped in Dorset (not a problem), getting to know and working for our local business community. Every sale completed on Designed in Dorset means we have succeeded, and a small business owner is that little bit closer to fulfilling their dreams.

In our opinion, the Brexit agreement will only strengthen the shop local movement. With delays on imports becoming more common by the day, you can at least rely on a local business to get your shopping to you. We look forward to growing the ‘Designed in’ brand further and branching out into a county near you in the future. 

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